Children’s Rights : Quid pro Quo

There are old people alive now who, when they were young, knew old people who were alive when the Mines Act was passed in 1842 and children were banned from working in the pits in Britain.It is not distant history, yet an enormous amount has happened since then to improve the lives of children. Compulsory schooling was introduced in 1886. Juvenile Courts were set up in 1908 under the Children’s Charter. The National Health Service was set up in 1948. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child was agreed in 1989. Last but not least, this Government has invested more in children and child care services than any previous administration.

Along the way, many other landmarks have been passed, each the achievement of people who were battling to improve things for children. These developments have not happened by accident; they have required hard work, taking on vested interests such as the owners of the coal mines, for example, and they have needed resources.

It is often said that investing in children is important because they are our future. The fact that it is said often does not make it a trite truism. The time, effort and money are worth investing for a variety of reasons. The first is that children deserve to have a good life for their own sakes. Our children and grandchildren are the coming generations in our families, and as they have relied on us, we may come to rely on them. And for economic reasons, too, the country needs the up and coming generations to have the knowledge, skills and capabilities for the country to succeed in the world context, whether through invention, design, manufacturing or services.

But if children are to succeed and to contribute to the country’s success, they need not only the attributes mentioned above, but also the right attitudes and values. Knowledge and skills are no use if the possessor is not motivated to use them or uses them for the wrong ends. The wider community does not benefit if individuals serve only their own purposes. We need young people who are prepared to work hard, who are committed to serving the community, who want the world to be a better place, who are prepared to make sacrifices, who are prepared to carry responsibility.

This is the other side of the rights coin. As it spins, you see both sides and they are the same coin. Children deserve the rights they need to be protected, to enjoy good health, to enable them develop, to be educated, to obtain employment, to find a place in the wider community, to be valued and respected. But it is a matter of give and take. In turn, they need to respect others, to make their contribution to family life, to work hard at school and college, to avoid infringing the law.

It would be easy to write an Editorial to bemoan all the things going wrong with today’s young people – the binge drinking, the drug abuse, the early pregnancies, the vandalism and the anti-social behaviour – but, as in any generation, there is also a lot to applaud which does not hit the media headlines – the hard work at school, the voluntary activities, the successes at sport, the concern about the environment, the care for dependent parents.

In recent years, we have emphasised children’s rights. That has been important, and there are ways in which their rights should still be extended. However, it is also important that we should expect children to be responsible in turn. Indeed, you might say that it should be their right to be responsible, to make choices and take decisions appropriate to their age. In the same way that the right to free speech requires of speakers that they use that right responsibly, avoiding slander and malice, children need to learn that they have been granted their rights in order that they in turn will learn to respect the rights of others. To pass that learning on is a legacy worth more than money.

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